Where’s First Draft?First Draft by Tim Porter, my blog on quality journalism, is archived here.
Buy My Book
Organic Marin, Recipes from Land to Table: Photographs, stories and recipes from organic farmers of Marin County and the restaurants that support them. Buy it here from Amazon.
My Art, Your Walls
Where to find my pictures
See My Portfolio
TagsBaseball Brad Will Buck Institute Canal Canal Alliance College of Marin D3 David Hobby David Pogue Digital Journalist Fairfax Fran Ortiz Golden Gate Bridge Joe McNally Journalism Larkspur Magnum Marin Marin County Marin General Hospital Marin Magazine Mary Ellen Mark Mexico Mill Valley Newspapers New York Times Nikon Novato Oaxaca Open studios organic Organic Marin Photography Photojournalism Point Reyes Station Salon San Francisco San Rafael Sausalito SB800 Scott Kelby Strobist The Image Flow Tiburon West Marin
Tag Archives: Brad Will
Last night while at a reception at a local art gallery I was talking with Edgar Sóberon, a talented painter whose work was chosen for the next cover of Marin Magazine. Sóberon, a native of Cuba who now lives in San Miguel de Allende, the central Mexico city known for its large community of both artists and North American expats.
I mentioned to Sóberon that my wife and I have a house in Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Hearing that, a woman in our conversation pocket said she planned to visit Oaxaca this summer and wanted to know what it was like. “Ah,” said Sóberon, “Oaxaca is what’s left of the real Mexico.”
As soon as I heard those words, I thought: The real Mexico? Which one is that?
Is the real Mexico in San Miguel, where thousands of older Americans, some wealthy, others living on Social Security, enjoy the tranquility, historical ambiance and mild weather the strong dollar buys them in this prosperous hillside city?
Is the real Mexico the terrorized border cities like Ciudad Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, where narco militias kill at will to protect their trafficking empires?
Is the real Mexico the one this art gallery guest hopes to visit in Oaxaca, where vendors sell colorful balloons in the zócalo, where the streets are lined with shops of artesania and where the cafés are crowded with language students having soulful discussions with their teachers?
Or is the the real Mexico the other Oaxaca — where government at all levels is marked by corruption, cronyism and crass disregard for the welfare of its citizens, where the average level of education is six years, where three quarters of the population lives in “extreme poverty,” and where rural Indian communities continue to engage in tribal turf battles reaching back to pre-colonial times?
Real Mexico? These are all real Mexicos. And there are many others as well — the modern avenidas of Monterrey, the cosmopolitan chic of Mexico City and, the one known by most Americans, the self-contained resorts of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Sadly, the Mexico most Mexicans must endure is a dysfunctional one, where government cannot — and often chooses not — to provide basic services, where narco-violence is on the rise and where the rule of law is something read about in textbooks not practiced in real life.
This is the Mexico that Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center For International Policy, labels on the Huffington Post as living in a state of impunity. Carlsen write in response to the April 27 murder of two human rights workers in a remote indigenous Oaxacan village, she frames the attack in the broader context of the state government’s history of not only siding with the powerful against the powerless but of actively repressing dissent.
“Layers of impunity and injustice have covered crimes in Oaxaca for years,” writes Carlsen. Her list of examples is long — the shooting death of U.S. journalist Brad Will during the bloody 2006 teachers strike for which no one was ever convicted even the though shooters were video-taped; the continued iron-fisted arrogance of Oaxacan Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz despite a ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court that he had committed human rights violations during that strike; and, now, the belief by human rights activists that paramilitary members sponsored by the government were behind the April 27 ambush outside San Juan Copala.
When the leaders of a society operate with corruption, arrogance and impunity, they create an atmosphere in which law has no meaning. As Carlsen puts it:
“Impunity is not merely a lack of justice and due punishment; it’s an incubator of violence and crime. When impunity becomes state policy, the rule of law crumbles. “
Although Carlsen is addressing Mexico’s most serious issues, her observation also applies to the quotidian illegal floutings of many Mexicans, who routinely run red lights, cheat on taxes, steal supplies from government contract jobs and see bureaucratic nepotism as a money-making opportunity.
I say these things even though I love so much about Mexico — its rich, blended culture; its amazingly diverse geography; its family centered communities; and, of course, its food (especially in Oaxaca). But I also love Mexico in the way I’d love a friend or relative with a substance-abuse problem — with sadness over his state, with anger his your self-destruction, and with hope that someone, some how, stages an intervention soon.
There is a Mexican saying, a dicho, that my first Spanish teacher taught me. It is apt here and goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga — “there is no bad that comes without a good.”
The real Mexico? That’s the one still waiting for the good to come.
A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story about the ominous criminal, political and social conditions in Mexico that have combined to degrade civil society in many parts of the country to the brink of public disorder.
Fueling this collapse are two evils — the ravenous appetite of the narco cartels for control of the border, of law enforcement and of the proverbial hearts and minds of Mexico’s impoverished citizens; and the endemic, ubiquitous and persistent corruption of government on all levels.
The Journal piece focused on the implications for the United States should the rule of law fail in Mexico. It quoted a high-ranking official in the country’s current ruling party, the PAN:
“The Mexican state is in danger. We are not yet a failed state, but if we don’t take action soon, we will become one very soon.”
For me, it’s more personal. I have good friends — Mexicans and Americans — who live there. I have a house in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most beautiful state and also its poorest. I have seen the country’s working people, through resilient desire and endless effort, carve out good lives for themselves amid a system that favors the wealthy, the connected and the corrupt. And, sadly, I have witnessed well-off people I considered friends express disdain for the poor and for the creation of a society of laws. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the current system.
I don’t cry easily. The scar tissue laid on during 20 years of daily journalism usually keeps the tears in check. But these days Mexico makes me cry.
In the fall of 2006 I stood in the zócalo, the main square, of Oaxaca – a place I love, where I got married, where I built a house on the far end of a dirt road – and watched a battered TV play a video of the day state police rousted striking public school teachers from the square. I watched the rise and fall of batons on makeshift shelters. I saw the march of heavy boots through darkened streets. Fires burned. Rocks flew. The camera shook. Above all, I heard the sound of helicopters, which police used to fling canisters of tear gas into the crowds below.
I cried right there as the video played. A woman next to me, dressed in the traditional apron of a southern Mexican housewife, saw me, an aging gringo journalist laden with camera gear, and said, “Que triste. Que triste.” How sad. How sad.
The resulting international outrage — far beyond any that accompanied the earlier deaths of dozens of Oaxacans — prompted the federal government to send troops into the city restore order.
More than two years later, nothing has changed for the better in Oaxaca. The economy, highly dependent on tourism, has yet to recover. The governor who attacked the striking teachers remains in power. The leaders of the strike are jailed. The killers of Brad Will are free. (The photo at the top of the post is from an anniversary march in Oaxaca’s main square two years after the 2006 attacks.)
Multiply this one incident — a strike, a shooting, a disregard by the authorities for even the facade of justice — throughout the country and amplify it along the drug-trafficking lanes in the border cities and you begin to get grasp of the severity of the challenges Mexico faces. Here’s one fact: 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. The U.S. dead in Iraq for six years of war is 4,200.
Perhaps you wonder why you should care about what happens in Mexico. After all, aren’t the beaches in Baja still beautiful and the pina coladas in Cancun just as tasty? De veras, they are. But Mexico is much more than an American playground.
First, it is also, as the Journal points out, the largest U.S. trading partner and with our economy already on life support we don’t need to lose our best customer.
Second, if you think having more than 4 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States is troublesome, then imagine the immigration pressure on the border should the Mexican government collapse. Says the Journal:
“It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees.”
Finally, there is morality. What is happening in Mexico is simply wrong. It is wrong to oppress the poor so the wealthy can prosper. It is wrong to deny people jobs because they belong to an opposing political party. It is wrong to glorify crime and drug use. And, it is wrong to kill journalists. (Read this report, or this one, or this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)
Poor Mexico. I cry for you. I wish I could do more.